Wolves were once federally protected but now can be hunted again, making the fate and future of the wolf more controversial than ever. UK journalist Jim Wickens reports from Wyoming and Montana to provide his unique insight into the wolf wars of the West. His blog accompanies the exclusive Earth Focus report, Shades of Gray: Living with Wolves, now online!
We drew up alongside a grey, drab building, unremarkable but for a little side entrance that opened up into a cornucopia of semi-plastered elk heads, racks of moose antlers, mountain lion casts, and a grizzly bear snarling from a perch near the ceiling. We were in the workshop of a taxidermist -- part and parcel of the big game hunting that Montana is famed for. And Mike, the owner of the business, had nervously agreed to talk to us. First we had to agree to be recorded ourselves, then copies of our passports were taken. Visibly shaken by the presence of a journalist, Mike told us that his attorney had said he shouldn't talk to us at all. Mike feels under threat, and particularly so from the media. Wisely fearful of misrepresentation perhaps, he wouldn't be the first to be misquoted for the sake of a tidy headline in this wolf debate over the years.
Scared to talk, and deeply defensive, armed with his own dictaphone whirring away in his breast pocket to record us as we recorded him, Mike eventually plucked up the courage to be interviewed. Standing awkwardly next to a trophy moose head, he described the intricate way in which taxidermist incomes depend upon there being enough trophy game animals to hunt. He had moved from the east coast to start a business here, winning national prizes along the way. But today his business stands depleted, dropping by 30% in recent years, and he said, it is mostly down to that four-legged animal again: the wolf. Hunters across Montana are up in arms about the damage that wolves are doing to elk populations. The big sky country of Montana was once famed for an elk migration numbering countless thousands. But today Mike told us, the numbers are seriously down, making the hunting of trophies -- and in turn the demand to mount them -- a much rarer thing that it used to be.
He's not against wolves he said, but he despairs at the current situation and says that they just need to be managed like every other animal in the state, echoing a common complaint from elk-hunting enthusiasts we met in cafes and diners on our way across the state. In a clever little bit of entrepreneurial marketing, Mike is currently offering a prize for the biggest wolf trophy photo he receives this winter, and he already has four wolves at the tannery, beginning their pain-staking journey of rebirth from bloodied pelt to mounted specimen. Unlike attitudes towards other game species such as elk or bear however, he said the opinion of his clients towards hunting wolves is very different indeed. Wolves are not being hunted in the state so much out of admiration or a competitive desire to add a prize wolf mount to one's big game collection, but rather out of a fundamental wish to simply reduce the number of them.
While we talked, a friendly young man walked through the door brandishing a plastic bag tied into knots, a bloody bobcat carcass lay within, freshly trapped on a ranch and ready for a taxidermic transformation. It's not to everyone's taste, taxidermy remains a niche and squeamish business to the outsider, but it's an industry that is remarkably important in a heartland state like Montana. I got the sense that taxidermy is a bit of a weather-gauge through which the economical vibrancy of the hunting industry can be assessed. And based on the sad, defensive, and defiant interview we carried out today, wolves, it seems, have a lot to answer for.
Jim Wickens is one of Britain's leading investigative journalists and the co-founder of both the Ecologist Film Unit and also Ecostorm, the environmental media agency. Jim has spend the last decade documenting unreported issues around the world, including exposing illicit whale-meat smuggling networks in Japan, filming the brutal Namibian seal hunt, documenting soya-related murders and poisoning in Argentina, breaking the story of fracking problems in the US, and filming illegal trawlers far out to sea on the Burmese border.